The journey begins when the airline stewardess sets a tray of Swiss chocolates in front of you. I chose one tiny piece, even though the whole tray looked scrumptious enough to eat. The chocolate melts in my mouth and hits a sweet spot—the Swiss experience begins in the air!
After the plane gently thuds onto the tarmac, within moments I am whisked into an automated tube train hurtling towards the main airport terminal. The sounds of alpine horns, yodelling and the mooing of cows surges in a soundtrack over the whoosh of the train as we ride along—the Swiss sure know to welcome a guest.
I leave the bustling airport swarming with skiers, backpackers, school children on vacation, tourists from all over the world and buses filled with Indians. Yes—that’s rights—there are buses full of Indian tourists at the airport. Indians are beloved by the Swiss Government for they are among the country’s most dedicated visitors. The Government recently erected a statue of late Yash Chopra the famous Bollywood producer in Interlaken. He used Switzerland as the backdrop for many of his blockbusters which resulted in thousands of Indians making the country their first choice for a vacation. They continue to visit to relive the onscreen romances of Sharmila Tagore, Rajesh Khanna, Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Rani Mukherjee and others.
Chopra visited Switzerland for his honeymoon and was bewitched. Romantic scenes set against the background of waterfalls, snow, mountains and meadows featured so prominently in his movies that the scenery can almost be counted as a character in his idyllic romantic extravaganzas. The “king of romance” shot extensively in the region of Interlaken while he made Faasle, Chandini and the legendary Dilwale Dulhan Le Jayenges—the stuff of dreams and fantasy indeed. He was given the title of Ambassador of Interlaken and a train on Jungfrau Railways has been named after him, an honor only bestowed upon one other persons—the founder of the railway system Adolf Guyer. A five star Victoria Jungfrau Grand hotel and spa in the area has also been named a suite after Chopra.
I enjoy the sights in Zurich, one of the most expensive cities in the world which is teeming with hedge fund millionaires, creative artists, students, and a thriving tourist industry. The city overflows with boutiques, galleries and stylish stores that spread out from a once gritty area Langstrasse to Hauptbahnhof the main railway station with boutiques nestling under the arches of a 19th century viaduct.
After browsing through stores where we see floors of diverse goods from around the world, we now go in search of chocolate. Every year, 175,000 tons of chocolate are produced in Switzerland. And the average Swiss native eats 12 kilograms per year! Armed with that information we set off looking for the oldest chocolate maker Sprungli, situated on the main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse. It is indeed the perfect confectionery destination, with an array of sweet treats. I indulge in Luxembergli, a heavenly biscuit flavored with chocolate, vanilla, raspberry, caramel, champagne and more. One bite and I feel, “All’s right with the world!”
As we return home, I glance outside to see sheep and cows on the hillsides. I hear that you have to be careful on such deserted hillsides, as there have been instances of cows attacking people. And magically a picture postcard scene appears in front of me. A sparkle of a stream, frisky ponies galloping to the fence as our car cruises along roads that cut through dark forests with mountains on the far edge of the horizon. There is hardly any noise and a sense of deep calm and permanence pervades me. The beauty fills me to the point of tears.
The next day we get a chance to walk in those meadows. We are off on pine scented trails, a quintessential experience in itself. We walk up a winding road for a couple of minutes and we are amid greenery on all sides. The silence, the hushed all-embracing quiet, surrounds us as we stroll in patches of sunlight that dazzle. We pause at a stack of wood piled six feet high. A fat squirrel skitters up a tree and my eye follows it into the branches of a tree that soars upward into the blue sky. A horse and rider quietly canter by and we spot another couple. A brief smile and greeting with the traditional “Gruetsky,” we walk on again wrapped in silence in this green world of ancient trees, shrubs and mysterious pathways. Silence and contemplation overtake our senses. My heart and eyes are open as we drive down the sloping roads encircled by grey shadowy mountains, forests glinting in the sunshine, pellucid lakes and vast blue skies. And the open spaces around us? Fifty shades of green no less. How is it possible to go about one’s daily business surrounded by this aching beauty—I wonder.
If nature does not make you catch your breath and you pine for the jet set glamorous holiday on ski slopes, take off to St. Moritz, Gstaad, Verbier and Zermatt, slip on DayGlo ski suits, Gucci goggles, sunblock, slim poles and move swiftly across the snow. A Swiss sport, Skikjoring has skiers pulled by galloping horses. You can play golf, polo and see exciting horse racing or urge on racing dog sledders and feisty cows who lock horns on the meadows A traditional Swiss sport Steinstossen involves heaving 180 pound stones into the distance. If you prefer less exertion, you can go on a spectacular journey to Mount Titlis, a glacier paradise of ice and snow caves with welcoming restaurants on the top.
Swiss, French, German and Italian cuisine dominate the landscape of culinary choices, although there are any number of Thai, Sri Lankan, Russian, Brazilian and Indian restaurants as well. When it comes to local fare, you can try raclette cheese melted over pickled vegetables, boiled potatoes or rosti hash brown potatoes crisply flavored with herbs, bacon and cheese. A cornucopia of cheese based regional specialties abound as do signs for local cheese and dairy fairs. There is a lot of pride in recipes handed down through the generations despite fusion foods being listed on the menu. For the epicurean and sophisticated consumer, boutique restaurants offer creative exciting menus, architecture, sweeping views and the descant of distant cowbells on the meadow. A truly heady experience at so many levels!
We lunch at Hotel Wassemar which is perched on a hillside by driving through a winding pathway through a forest that seems to be right out of a postcard. Atop the mountain, we sit out in the terraced garden overlooking meadows and mountains and are entranced as our dishes are brought outs—french fries that arrive in a tin bucket and a sliver of fish surrounded by asparagus, that cost 30 euros. Dining out can be expensive, but there are also small restaurants where you can grab a sandwich and hot chocolate and watch the world go by. There are any number of salad bars and food stalls enticing with excellent bratwurst on the main boutique shopping road Bahnofstrasse or the self service restaurants where we often rested our weary feet. These are very affordable choices in the city.
A stroll around the Limmat River banks with bobbing boats and tourists is a must. If you prefer a walk that is even more tranquil, you can meander round the twisting streets, Gothic guildhalls, churches and a very impressive Cathedral Grossmunster, a 12th century Romanesque cathedral. Another landmark is the Fraununster church with stained glass windows by Marc Chagall and St Peterhofstatt which has the largest clock face in the whole of Europe.
We went on a visit to the church of the Black Madonna in Einsiedeln, a 45 minute drive from Zurich though sweeping vistas of mountains and lakes. This Benedectine Monastery houses the 15th century Black Madonna made of black marble. Pilgrims and visitors have been worshipping here for 1,000 years as the sacred place is known for its miraculous powers. Local folklore explains that the Black Madonna’s black hue was formed by centuries of candle smoke which changed the color of the original flesh-toned image. We pray, marvel at the frescoes and baroqoue edifices, browse the souvenir stores and rest with cappuccinos while the sun sets in a brilliant hued sky.
During our visit, we meet families from India who have chosen to become Swiss citizens and cannot imagine living anywhere else. There are around 3,000 Indians working in the fields of technology and banking in Switzerland. Magnificent towering apartment buildings with excellent amenities are straddled across the city housing the families. A growing number of people from Italy, France, Germany and Austria cross the border daily to work here as well. Work ranges from construction work to clerical and managerial duties.
So what is the language spoken among these diverse populations? The Swiss speak four languages fluently. Three European cultures have been so inextricably linked with the history of Switzerland that German, French and Italian are spoken along with Romansh which is perhaps the only native Swiss language. Romansh is barely used by one percent of the Swiss.
After assimilating these intriguing facts, we decide to explore the country’s history further and we felt spoilt by the choices in front of us. There are 1000s of them in the country and we soon learn that this is the place with the highest per capita concentration of museums in the world! Museum of Shoes and Museum of Sewing machines are just a few incredulous titles that we saw on the list. In the heart of Zurich is the Reitberg Museum exhibiting excellent collections of masterworks from India, China, Japan, Peru and other countries making it a truly global visit.
Zurich is full of surprises. On our last visit I happened to go to the police station to file a report and the walls inside the police station were filled with incredible murals and paintings. A traffic violation took me to the station. We took an illegal U turn. A foolish mistake indeed when a tram was heading in our direction with it being barely six inches away from our car. Tramlines and car lanes intersect on the same narrow roads—a detail that escaped our attention, as we were not used to looking out for trams. A deafening screech was heard as the fender of the tram hit the side of our car and merrily towed us a few hundred yards. Mercifully, no one was hurt.
At the police station far from the chaos of the accident scene, I am stunned at the visual spectacle in front of me. The painter Augusto Giacometti who died in 1947 was a brilliant artist, renowned for his visionary paintings, murals and many buildings in Zurich exhibit his versatility. This police station with huge halls and massive porticos, must have been the home of a nobleman perhaps, and it now proudly exhibited Augusto’s art. As I file my report, I find tourists gazing with rapt wonder at the murals. Obviously the police station was part of their itinerary!
The surprises keep coming. I learn that the Swiss cuckoo clock was not made by the Swiss but its birthplace was in the Blackforest area in Germany.
As they say what can be more Swiss than a chalet? So off we go chugging up a toy train in Braunwald and with deference to our wobbly knees, ignore the steep walk up, and take the only taxi up the winding enchanted mountain side to the chalet. Here we are within nodding distance of the mountains, verdant valleys and most certainly I need to use my vocal cords. So I spring up the green hillside, spread my arms to the sky and sing lustily—“The hills are alive with the sound of music,” a la Julie Andrews and no one complains!
For three months, we steeped ourselves in a fifty shades of green landscape, a country of placid lakes, gushing rivers, soaring mountains, swaying cornfields, meadows of sunflowers and storybook homes tucked away in faraway forests. We again hear the Alpine yodelling, cow bells descant on the sound track of our airport train as we head towards the plane which will fly us back to Los Angeles.
Prem Souri Kishore is a travel and food writer, and a voice over professional speaker and radio host. She has written a book titled, ‘India: A Culinary Journey.’ Passionate about words, her personal license plate reads ‘wordstrck’ that stands for Wordstruck!